Since its inception back in 1960 the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has scanned our skies looking for clues of intelligent life elsewhere in our universe. As you might have already guessed the search has yet to bear any fruit since, as far as we’re concerned, no one has been sending signals to us, at least not in the way we’re listening for them. The various programs that make up the greater SETI aren’t particularly well funded however, often only getting a couple hours at a time on any one radio telescope on which to make their observations. That’s all set to change however as Russian business magnate Yuri Milner is going to inject an incredible $100 million into the program over 10 years.
SETI, for the unaware, is a number of different projects and experiments all designed to seek out extraterrestrial life through various means. Traditionally this has been done by scanning the sky for radiowaves, looking for signals that are artificial in nature. Whilst the search has yet to find anything that would point towards a signal of intelligent origin there have been numerous other signals found which, upon further investigation, have turned out to have natural sources. Other SETI programs have utilized optical telescopes to search for communications using laser based communications, something which we have actually begun investigating here on earth recently. There are also numerous other, more niche programs under the SETI umbrella (like those looking for things like Dyson Spheres are other mega engineering projects) but they all share the common goal of answering the same questions: are we alone here?
Since these programs don’t strictly advance science in any particular field they’re not well funded at all, often only getting a handful of hours on telescopes per year. This means that, even though such a search is likely to prove difficult and fruitless for quite a long time, we’re really only looking for a small fraction of the year. The new funds from Yuri Milner will bolster the observation time substantially, allowing for continuous observations for extended periods of time. This will both increase the chances of finding something whilst also providing troves of data that will also be useful for other scientific research.
As Yuri says whilst we’re not expecting this increased funding to instantly result in a detection event the processes we’ll develop along the way, as well as the data we gather, will teach us a lot about the search itself. The more we try the more we’ll understand what methods haven’t proved fruitful, narrowing down the possible search areas for us to investigate. The science fiction fan in me still hopes that we’ll find something, just a skerrick, that shows there’s some other life out there. I know we won’t likely find anything for decades, maybe centuries, but that hope of finding something out there is what’s driving this program forward.
I understand that a basic understanding of circuit fundamentals isn’t in the core curriculum for everyone but the lack of knowledge around some electrical phenomena really astounds me. Whilst most people understand the idea of radio waves, at least to the point of knowing that they power our wireless transmissions and that they can be blocked by stuff, many seem to overestimate the amount of power that these things carry. This misunderstanding is what has led several questionable Kickstarter campaigns to gain large amounts of funding, all on the back of faulty thinking that simply doesn’t line up with reality. The latest incarnation of this comes to us in the form of the Nikola Phone Case which purports to do things that are, simply, vastly overblown.
The Nikola Phone Case states that it’s able to harvest the energy that your phone “wastes” when it’s transmitting data using it’s wireless capabilities. They state that your phone uses a lot of power to transmit these signals and that only a fraction of these signals end up making their way to their destination. Their case taps into this wasted wireless signal and then captures it, stores it and then feeds it back into your phone to charge its battery. Whilst they’ve yet to provide any solid figures, those are forthcoming in the next couple weeks according to the comments section, they have a lovely little animated graph that shows one phone at 70% after 8 hours (with case) compared to the other at 30% (without case). Sounds pretty awesome right? Well like most things which harvest energy from the air it’s likely not going to be as effective as its creators are making out to be.
For starters the the idea hinges on tapping into the “wasted” energy which implies that it doesn’t mess with the useful signal at all. Problem is there’s really no way to tell which is useful signal and which isn’t so, most likely, the case simply gets in the way of all signals. This would then lead to a reduction in signal strength across all radios which usually means that the handset would then attempt to boost the signal in order to improve reception, using more power in the process. The overall net effect of this would likely be either the same amount of battery life or worse, not the claimed significant increase.
There’s also the issue of battery drain for most smartphones devices not being primarily driven by the device’s radio. Today’s smartphones carry processors in them that are as powerful as some desktops were 10 years ago and thus draw an immense amount of power. Couple that with the large screens and the backlights that power them and you’ll often find that these things total up to much more battery usage than all of the radios do. Indeed if you’re on an Android device you can check this for yourself and you’ll likely find that the various apps running in the background are responsible for most of the battery usage, not your radio.
There’s nothing wrong with the Nikola Phone Case at a fundamental technological level, it will be able harvest RF energy and pump it back into your phone no problem, however the claims of massive increases in battery life will likely not pan out to be true. Like many similar devices that have come before it they’ve likely got far too excited about an effect that won’t be anywhere near as significant outside the lab. I’ll be more than happy to eat my words if they can give us an actual, factual demonstration of the technology under real world circumstances but until then I’ll sit on this side of the fence, waiting for evidence to change my mind.